SHANGHAI - Two weeks ago Cats, the legendary musical with its record $2 billion box office sales and worldwide audience of 73 million people, had its Chinese language premiere in Shanghai. This will be followed by a tour of 162 performances in other major Chinese cities.

Following the success of Mamma Mia!, Cats is the second Chinese adaptation of a musical promoted by United Asia Live Entertainment (UAE). Mamma Mia!, which is currently on its second tour of China, set a record of 191 consecutive performances on its first tour last year and earned 850 million RMB ($134 million) at the box office. 2011 went down as “The First Year of China’s Musicals.”

Whereas Mamma Mia! is a warm family comedy, Cats is much more abstract since its plot is based on T.S Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” a poem, and it has almost no dialogue.

In addition to understanding the screenplay, the actors need to have excellent physical fitness and staunch willpower. “We have uninterrupted rehearsals sessions from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily with costume and makeup on. The dancing is even harder than on Mamma Mia!” says Mao Haifei who plays the role of Quaxo in Cats after dancing in last year’s version of Mamma Mia!.

Not only are the actors required to maintain the posture and the look of cats all through the musical, but they also have to dance non-stop for 150 minutes in various styles: classical, jazz, pop and rock.

Chinese versions

Whether it’s Mamma Mia! or Cats, the Chinese versions follow the “Original production team plus Chinese actors” format. The copyright agreement alone has hundreds of pages of densely written text specifying each deal. UAE has signed respectively with the owners of the two musicals -- Little Star and Really Useful, both UK companies -- a contract of five years. The costs of the first-round performances are borne by the UAE but are underwritten by local entertainment companies on the second round.

Tian Yuan, the general manager of UAE, does not hide his ambitions for musicals in China’s domestic market. "We are the first ones in China to produce musicals professionally. Mamma Mia!’s Chinese version was our initiation. We are hoping to find a mode of localized musical production, finance and local talent. We’d like to found our own theater, performing groups, and have our own originality."

“A Chinese version makes it easier for the Chinese audience to be fully integrated into the story. The use of Chinese language and Chinese performers draws the audience closer to the show," Tian Yuan says. In Mamma Mia!, local Internet buzzwords are deliberately added to highlight the localization. In the Shanghai premiere of Cats, one of the roles, the "aristocratic cat," said “goodbye” in Shanghainese on stage, attracting the audience’s laughter.

The costs of an original version and a Chinese version differ greatly. The original version of Mamma Mia! introduced in 2007 with 16 performances over two weeks cost 15 million RMB ($2.36 million) in operating costs, whereas its Chinese version costs 30 million ($4.72 million).  

“I have a five-year performance cycle to digest this cost. The first year we staged nearly 200 performances and we won’t do less than 100 performances per year from the second year. In total there could be 600 performances in five years," Tian Yuan says -- though he does not disclose any specific figures for royalties.

During the musical production process, the many castings as well as the rehearsals are all subject to the requirements of the UK companies. The attention to details is astounding.

"These foreign firms very much hope that we are able to quickly learn all the aspects of the entire production links and process, and do it 100 percent,” Tian Yuan explains. "These musicals are not 'Made in China,' but 'Chinese versions' and the quality must be guaranteed so that whether it is in London, Germany, Russia, South Korea or Japan, the audience sees the same quality. Only good quality will sustain good vitality.”

Bringing a Chinese touch

Jo-Anne Robinson has worked on both the Broadway and the West End version of Cats for 30 years. Today she is directing and choreographing the Chinese version. She explains that right from the start of the creation there is a blueprint. The music, dance and acting are all planned out in accordance with this blueprint.

“Nevertheless, Chinese actors are not carbon copies. They need to bring richness to each cat in accordance with their own understanding of the musical,” she says.

The Chinese version has the most cats on stage since its creation, a total of 34. The Broadway version has only 24 to 26 cats.

The people working on the Chinese version were particularly concerned about the adaptation of the Cats theme song, Memory. Music director Fiz Shapur says that, "Taking into account the Chinese syllables, phonology, and in particular the tones, is very difficult. The slightest mistake will cause ambiguity.”

The biggest challenge lies in finding the right cast. “There aren’t many actors in China who can act, dance and sing. Besides, it’s rare to find among the few who meet the basic requirements someone who has any experience in musicals,” Fiz Shapur points out. 

However, after seeing the passion of Chinese audiences for Mamma Mia!, the Chinese version of Broadway musicals looks destined for great success. When the familiar tune of ABBA’s Dancing Queen started, almost all the audience got up and applauded with excitement. They waved their arms, whistled, screamed and jumped up and down. The boundary of the stage is blurred and the theater becomes a venue for a giant party. One does not see this often in reserved China.